Late Saturday afternoon and we’re pushing through the cheery chaos of a bustling market square. Our destination: a handsome, refurbished pub, basking in a strong, low Autumn sun, windows brimming with banter and flushed faces.
We find the last seats beside the fire: tastefully battered chesterfields with open arms and wide, padded laps.
I’m at the bar ready to order. I’m people watching: breathing in an enticing cocktail of punters: gaggles of shoppers, dropping fistfuls of branded bags and parcels, tossing coats and scarves onto empty chairs; old, market town regulars with their phones and keys on the bar, counting their loose change and lining up the next round.
And there, across the bar, I’m seeing a woman, alone. She’s sat very straight and upright on her bar stool, still and demure in her demeanour, a strange ghost of a smile haunting face. This woman, I note, is approaching middle-age and very well-presented: her dress is of a dark hue, conservative and neat, her dark hair pulled back from her face save an occasional lock that, from time to time, she pushes back behind her ear. A pint of cider, an odd and incongruous thing to my male eye, sits before her, her fingers curled lightly around it, tracing the precipitation up and down its length. She looks to the mid-distance, her frame barely moving. To me there seems a hint of self-consciousness about her, as if she is part of some larger audition in which she wishes to impress with a diffident cameo. As I’ve scooped my change into a pocket, I’ve wondered if she’ll be joined by someone. However, as I’ve already strongly suspected, no-one arrives.
I return to my wife and, a while later, our boy’s welcome preoccupation with a colouring book affords us a rare second round. My woman, I note, hasn’t moved. Now, though, one of the male drinkers who had also sat alone previously, has inched his stool nearer to hers. They are in conversation, though she still sits facing straight ahead whilst he, significantly older and large of frame, leans in towards her. As the barman attends to their order, I catch snatches of their conversation – one that wouldn’t be out of place at sixth-form party:
“Describe yourself in five words…”
“That’s not fair! What about the other three?”
“That’s all I have.” She smiles a faint smile.
Two pints of cider are placed before the man, and he takes off his cap, pushes the second pint in front of the woman, and shifts his stool closer still, so that his forearm is nearly touching hers. She is barely half-way through her own drink, and gestures towards the fresh pint she has clearly never asked for. He pushes it closer to her.
And I’m watching, allowing all kinds of judgements and preconceived ideas to pencil in the details of this stranger’s world.
A woman. Alone at the bar. Lonely? That smart appearance. Hoping to catch someone’s eye but wishing to appear respectable and not desperate? That disparate pint of cider. A drinker? The long fingers; that slip of hair; those careful, conscious mannerisms. Fragility? Vulnerability?
But then, I stop myself.
Why have I focussed on her? Why haven’t I made similar judgments of the various males who, also alone, have also staked their pitches on barstools? Perhaps she was merely hoping to enjoy a quiet drink and her own company. Perhaps she doesn’t give a damn what others think about the way she looks, where she chooses to hang out, and what she orders at the bar. Why should she not be happy in her own skin, even whilst onlookers like me make rash judgements based upon years of years of unhelpful conditioning? And, alternatively, if she does come out to seek company, why should see, as a woman, have to stand for the judgments and presumptions of men like in doing so?
We are, nearly all of us, always so quick to judge, so eager to steal a picture, stain the truth with a tag or meme, like some real-life imagining of Snapchat or Instagram. It’s going on all the time. How quick we are to stack up all of those preconceptions and stereotypes in the blink of an eye until we believe we have that whole person figured.
And dare I say that we men, who have had it so good for so long in this world, are, in general, among the worst culprit s of all.
I, we, will try better next time.